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Sunday, September 5, 2010

Schools are designed to create both winners and losers

In the best possible implementations of today's school system: anyone can succeed, but everyone can't succeed.

Schools and their classrooms are as competitive as any sport. By design, they rely on a motivational and management system where there must be winners and there must be losers.

Specifically, schools pit students against each other to get them to participate in their programs, rather than use more aspirational and productive techniques.

Classes and other activities don't just grade, but do it on a curve, with percentages of students being pushed into the highest and lowest categories. And the schools praise and otherwise reward the "best" students, in the form of public honors (including publishing the Honor Roll in the local papers) and one-on-one teacher praise, even to the point of assigning moral virtue.

There are some ecosystem implications:

  • The most successful students are legitimate threats to everyone else. Many students are taught to logically resent the smartest students. Some of the smartest students even respond to the social pressure not to perform well.
  • Students are only motivated to help other students who are, in the ranking system, permanently below them.
  • As with athletes doping, the payoff for students to cheat becomes increasingly worth the risk for some.

But there are more macro implications. True, one can argue that life is competitive, and that students might as well get used to it. Fair enough. But consider:

  • Many top students are motivated to excel primarily by maintaining their "top student" status. Thus any politician who advocates using schools as a vehicle to broad citizenship excellence is completely missing the inherent nature of schools.
  • This also means that (massive) tax-payer dollars are supporting institutions that will necessarily classify and even create "losers" of at least a third of all students. Resources are being dedicated to creating an institutional underclass.
  • Many of the skills rewarded in schools do not have productive-world implications. We could just was well be giving the highest moral status to the best jugglers.
Schools are designed to be compulsory, highly competitive, and increasingly all-inclusive of childhood. What can possibly go wrong with that model?

1 comment:

  1. Teachers are usually required to grade on a skewed bell curve, meaning more B's than D's, but about the same number of A's as F's. A friend of mine was teaching in a private prep school and set her grades that way, but was told (privately, of course) that people pay a lot of money to send their kids there, and they expect their kids to get A's and B's.

    So grades can be bought. :-)

    I don't care about grades, but I do feel for those families who don't realize that a million children not yet born will fail in school NOT because they "don't apply themselves" but because there will be as many F's as A's.